Interview with Manolo Bañó (father) and Manu Bañó (son), specialists in social design
17 Jan 2021 /

Interview with Manolo Bañó (father) and Manu Bañó (son), specialists in social design

A new chapter of our collaboration with DESFICI Magazine, takes shape in an interview to Manolo Bañó, industrial designer, teacher and founder of the CEU-UCH Design School and Free Design Bank, together with his son, Manu Bañó, co-founder of EWE studio.

Paula G. Furió, journalist from DESFICI Magazine, is picked up by them: “They share a trade, they have the same welcoming smile and the same spirit of adventure. I think of what my father says so often –mirant la barraca, com ha de ser el melonar– our equivalent of a chip off the old block. In this month’s report for World Design Capital Valencia 2022 we speak to father and son about the new horizons and challenges faced by design: sustainability, the recovery of craftsmanship and social wellbeing.”

Everybody who knows Manolo Bañó knows that Manolo is the sea. What is more, everybody who knows Manolo knows that Manolo is the Mediterranean. When I asked him where he would like to do this interview, he gave me no choice: “We love the Pinedo beach and we always go to the “La Brisa” restaurant. Since Manu, his son, has come from Mexico City for a few days, we arrange to meet one afternoon. A cremaet (coffee liqueur), a mistela, water, and a sunset that offers us the full spectrum of blues, oranges and greens are the perfect setting for this interview on a cold winter’s afternoon by the sea. With these views, we begin with Manolo’s experience.

PAULA – I would like you to tell me how the idea arose in 1999 for Free Design Bank and how you managed to get the project underway.

MANOLO – The idea arose from the concern to look more deeply into the social values of design. I had a conventional design studio, I worked for Muñecas Famosa, Pinypon, Nenuco and Barriguitas, and also for the Snipe footwear brand, which was very successful at one point. After 20 years as a product designer, I had the feeling that the scope of design was somewhat restricted, that it was very much focused on products which, in reality, covered needs that were somewhat false. They were products made for people who had no real needs. Design began to offer me less than I had hoped for, so I looked for an opening. I knocked on the door of the NGO Oxfam, known at the time as Intermón Oxfam, which did a lot of work with designer objects that it sold under fair trade terms, and I volunteered to collaborate with them. It seems I arrived at the right time, and they immediately commissioned me for the design part of all the products they imported. All of a sudden, I found myself working with small and medium-sized workshops around the world, trying to improve their production processes, deciding how to produce or which type of materials should be used, the packaging, etc. The whole manufacturing and marketing process of products that I helped to improve with my design tools. That was how I began in the world of social design.

PAULA – Did you do it from here?

MANOLO – Yes, Intermón Oxfam had its headquarters in Barcelona but, by coincidence, the trade department was in Valencia, which facilitated things a great deal. We worked for producers in India, the Philippines, Africa and South America. That was when I learnt to relate design with real need, because the artisans with whom we worked practically needed deign to survive. Here we are used to design giving us another type of satisfactions, but not to its being associated directly with need. In this part of the world, what we designers call “need” is, in reality, a stupidity. At the most, and in the best case, we can speak of small improvements in the use of an object that would probably not be essential, at least in its latest version. However, with these other groups of artisans it is easy to realise that design gives them, in their case, the possibility of survival, since it constitutes the only salary they can take home. It really improves the quality of their families. On the other hand, I also realised that this was the model I had been searching for since, as a designer, my work was not so much that of producing objects, but of creating a sustainable production model. This turn of events, full of nuances, was what filled the kind of empty space in my professional life. In that way I could focus on the field of social design, and I say social design so that we can understand each other because, in reality, I think we should simply speak of real design.

As a designer, my work was not so much that of producing objects, but of creating a sustainable production model.

PAULA – I suppose all the projects are special to a certain extent, but which ones would you highlight during all this time?

MANOLO – There are two projects that have worked very well and which continue to do so, one in South America and the other in Kenya. Right now they are on hold, because of the pandemic, of course, these are times of crisis and crises always have a greater effect on more remote areas and precarious relationships. The Kenya project is run by an NGO named Afrikable (www.afrikable.org), a very large project with which we have collaborated from the beginning and which takes groups of women in unfavourable circumstances from a very remote and poor area of Kenya. They give them a trade, a physical shelter and training. This group of women manufactures a series of products designed by us, by Free Design Bank, which they then sell via the web page of Afrikable. With that money, which is all for them, the women fund themselves and the NGO is maintained, which also takes responsibility for schooling the children of these women and feeding them every day. We have been collaborating with Afrikable for ten or eleven years, since the NGO was founded. On the other hand, the project in South America is called Talleres del Gran Valle and it is a macro project with many ramifications, including agriculture, fish farming and the production of objects from a very particular material called luffa. It is the material of certain bath sponges, cylindrical and very porous. It is the fruit of a marrow, the inside part, and it grows in an area of Ecuador where this community works. With this material we make useful objects that they sell and from which they obtain money that enables them to live decently. We have been working with them for about twenty years despite the ups and downs, which are inevitable. You have to take into account that these are very marginal areas where the projects do not always have the continuity that we would like. Some of the personal situations are extremely dramatic. In spite of everything, it is one of the projects I am most fond of and with which, without any doubt, we will continue working.

PAULA – Have the other projects drawn to a close?

MANOLO – We try to implement a sustainable production model that is very much supported by design. What our groups of craftswomen do is to obtain money through the sale of the objects they make and which are generally sold to Westerners. Therefore, we do this as a viable and sustainable economic model that removes the need for people to travel or emigrate. It is a model that, worked on a large scale, would solve some of the emigration problems of all the people who leave home in search of a better life. If those people found a better life at home, they would stay there, without any doubt. Therefore, we understand our work as a model. Once a cycle has been closed with that model and it has worked, when it becomes clear that the group generates its own income, we withdraw to continue giving support at a reduced level. There comes a time when they have to push for everything themselves to keep going. In cases such as that of Ecuador, for example, certain circumstances such as poverty or the political and social conditions mean that the project does not progress as it should and the wheel stops turning. But the knowledge is there and everything will start when the situation allows.

PAULA – Has it ever happened that, after seeing a group of craftswomen, other groups or communities have followed the example without the intervention of Free Design Bank?

MANOLO – More or less. What we do needs other types of support, it requires an infrastructure, an NGO that follows the daily lives of the women, etc. When we can, we facilitate all those things, but we do not provide them. We form associations with other NGOs such as, for example, the Catalonian Xarxa de Consum. I would say that our example serves as a reference for other NGOs that work in the area and contact us, but I would not go so far as to say that they copy the model because it is not ours alone.

PAULA – It would be great if this working model were generalised, wouldn’t it?

MANOLO – Yes, absolutely. We do not usually advertise much. We work more by word of mouth, and this means that we get calls from other NGOs, or somebody who saw how something we developed in a certain area worked, and who wants to set up something similar in their village. In any case, it should be said that our project is very small. It is promoted by the CEU and I direct it, but it is normally supported by volunteer students and collaborating designers. Also, we can’t call many people because we work in a small space in, for example, the forest of Ecuador. We don’t need a lot of people, but dedicated people who know how to resolve problems in the field. It is likely that a great designer from here would not be able to endure the forest of Ecuador. We also give a lot of priority to the students’ experience. The project not only benefits people there, but it also seeks to benefit young designers here, so that they can see that the world does not end with their bubble. Design has to expand, so many designers cannot live together in one square metre and do the same thing. At the end of the day, that is what is happening. It is very good, on both a personal and a professional level, for students to see other realities and to develop their skills in other contexts. Therefore, fifty per cent of the project tries to improve the quality of life of, especially, groups of disfavoured women in countries of the southern hemisphere. The other fifty per cent prompts new designers from here to see that the reality of their lives does not coincide with the reality of the world or the real problems people have. If design is a tool to solve problems, we will not do much if we only look at the first world. In a time like the present, with an employment crisis, it is interesting to see that eighty per cent of the design world remains to be discovered. It is a matter of opening doors that reveal other landscapes that are more complex but also more virgin. At the end of the day, design here is repeated a great deal.

If design is a tool to solve problems, we will not do much if we only look at the first world.

PAULA – On the subject of learning, experiences of this type are surely more enriching than learning to design the perfect object, aren’t they?

MANOLO – Yes, indeed. I am lucky in that the CEU allows me to dedicate part of the time to showing students this point of view, and the exercises I do with them are very much in line with what you have just pointed out. For example, with the material we spoke about, luffa, what can we do? New things, surely, different and attractive. If they overcome certain design barriers, such as the fact that the material is strange, or that sometimes the quality is not so good, one finds an absolutely creative object, innovative and attractive, a material that quickly gives returns on the effort invested in it. That is the type of exercise I propose to the students. They must face something new without letting machines do everything, resolve the challenges posed by something they are not familiar with. That is what being a designer is, not just having access to technology. With more artisan, more basic, production methods, we need to be familiar with all the details of the material we are working with, and this forms part of the learning process of a designer. This project also contributes a lot in that respect. On the other hand, it is necessary to understand the context of the products, and for that the students have to put themselves in somebody else’s shoes. That is the only way they can understand a great many things.

PAULA – Do they go to the communities with you?

MANOLO – Yes, although there are nuances. Places are limited, I can’t take all twenty-five students from the class. Going is voluntary, of course, but I must say that very few would endure the conditions of the terrain. Since I know many of the students, I am usually good at knowing who would endure and who would not. Of those I think would endure and would enjoy it, normally eighty per cent can’t go or don’t want to. Therefore, in the end there are usually only a few left and they are the ones that come. We did a project in Mali to which four students came and then I brought three from there to study in the CEU. Last year we were in Senegal with nine. Normally between one or nine come on each project, and not always, because sometimes the visit to the site coincides with the holiday period. Normally we design the product here and by means of plans or renders we take it to the site and set it up.  There is a moment, at the beginning, when all the doubts arise, when it is important to be with the artisans. One person always needs to be there, me at least, although often my partner, Amparo, who knows how to sew, comes too. She usually takes charge of all the training in textiles.

PAULA – Having been to so many places, with so many different communities, you must have extensive knowledge of the material culture of the places. How do you see the relationship between design and anthropology?

MANOLO – Phew, what a question! You should have sent it to me in writing a week ago! (Laughter). I don’t know whether I am going to answer your question, but I am going to talk about it.

There is a starting point that we should be clear about: so that we understand each other, I call the people we work with artisans”, but in reality they weren’t artisans before, neither do they end up being so afterwards. One way or another, they end up doing crafts, and therefore we call them artisans. What I want to say is that we don’t work with ancestral cultures, with traditions based on the materials. In reality, what we do is arrive in a place where there is nothing, we see what cheap or free materials there are in the vicinity, and with that we set up a project. What materials are there? It may be that, as occurred in a desert in Peru, there is only sand and we must adapt to design products with fabric and sand.

Another example could be that of Kenya. In the area where we work there is a problem with plastic water bottles, since there is some tourism and for years an incredible number of bottles have accumulated which end up in landfills. In one of the projects we invented a way to recycle that material and convert it into a product intended for trade.

There is also a lot of waste caused by flipflops that float and, because of the currents in the Indian Ocean, reach certain points of the African coast generating mountains of EVA rubber waste.

I say this because many people confuse an artisan in Africa with someone who masters ancestral carving techniques. And no, it isn’t like that. They have no idea how to work with any material and, moreover, the materials they can obtain free of charge are materials such as sand, an old flipflop, water bottles or recycled plastic bags. It is a disadvantage that we must add to everything we have considered so far.

PAULA – Perhaps there is even more merit in creating something useful and beautiful starting with those raw materials, right?

MANOLO – There is more merit, yes. It is also true that the products derived from those materials can only be sold in a fair-trade network that especially values the origin of the product. Nobody would buy products of that type if they were displayed in a posh shop in Ruzafa. But if you sell them through an NGO or a fair-trade shop precisely where the public values and understands where they come from, then they can be sold. We play with the advantage of awareness. In the end, one way or another, the person trying to sell us their product is also selling us the philosophy behind it.

To face something new without letting machines do everything, resolve the challenges posed by something they are not familiar with. That is what being a designer is, not just having access to technology.

While we have been talking the sun has almost hidden behind the trees and the sky has turned orange. Some seagulls float over the shore, they almost levitate. I think that it has been too long since I saw a sunset in the Albufera. The restaurant owner is clearing the table and he jokes about the cold, he is wishing we would go but we still feel like talking. We exchange the terrace of La Brisa for a bench on the promenade and I ask Manu about his career. In the CEU UCH he studied Industrial Design and a master’s degree specialising in furniture and lighting. He was an intern for nine months in Magnus Long’s studio in London and, through several coincidences, ended up working in Mexico City with Héctor Esrawe in his architecture, interior design and furniture studio.

MANU – Through my experience I have seen that in Europe people work in small design teams that offer designs to brands that produce and market those designs, generally furniture and products. In Mexico, on the other hand, there is no industry or large brands. The design studios in Mexico design, produce and sell everything they do so that generally the medium-sized studios have their offices, their factory and their shop. That is the case of Esrawe. Something that was a challenge and which I greatly enjoyed was being in the workshop with the craftsmen: I got to know a lot of techniques, materials and professionals. That was where the idea arose for EWE, a studio parallel to Esrawe but with different production times: we make single pieces or short runs of furniture. We preserve and strengthen the artisan heritage of Mexico and we design together with workshops in Oaxaca, Puebla and Guadalajara. For our model to be sustainable, we sell through art galleries, our pieces are very sculptural and each one has its production times, from a month to three and a half months.

MANOLO – One of the values and points of interest of EWE Studio is that you work in a part of the design world that is very much on the borderline, so much so that sometimes it is considered to form part of the world of art more than that of design. There is a no man’s land between the world of art and other worlds such as design, or vice versa. It is a diffuse area that makes people feel uneasy, it discomfits them, because we normally like to label things and be clear about what something is and what it is not. And I think that in EWE Studio you have the attraction of being located in that quicksand between art and design. In the end, what you are doing is taking new territories for design, colonising new areas. I place a great deal of value on that because it is very risky, innovative and, at the same time, it benefits us as designers because it claims those new territories and expands our range of work.

MANU – That’s right, it is a field that allows a lot more experimentation. The limits end up being the ones you set for yourself: if you work with an artisan who is able to find eight-tonne stones, bring them to his workshop and receive you with open arms so that you can tell him what to do, or so that he can suggest to you what can be done, you can’t resign yourself to making a commercial piece of furniture. If you have the possibility, you have to do something challenging. Of course, these are expensive materials, expensive processes, and we are talking about skilled artisans. When I say artisan” it sounds as though I’m talking about a poor man cutting stone, but no, they are organised workshops with teams of fifteen people. The best artisans in the country. They sign their pieces together with us because they are happy to have made them.

MANOLO – In Valencia when we assert craftsmanship, we assert the small artisan, the person who repairs chairs or works with esparto and makes espadrilles. The artisans they work with are large teams that confront very difficult materials. There is no less merit, but there is less scale, to making espadrilles from esparto or confronting a fifteen-tonne marble stone and making the most of it. There is a difference that makes it especially attractive.

MANU – We also work with small artisans who make simpler things. But the reality is that what we seek is the challenge, not what has already been done. Using techniques that already exist and natural materials, we seek results that appeal to the senses and say something new with what was already there. That is why we work with the best artisans in the country.

Using techniques that already exist and natural materials, we seek results that appeal to the senses and say something new with what was already there.

PAULA – You two have travelled almost everywhere in the world. How do you think Valencia is seen from outside, from the point of view of design? 

MANOLO – I think that being world design capital is a good opportunity to make Valencia known, because it isn’t known. We designers know each other, but we are 0.001% of the population of the planet. The rest, no idea. Perhaps a designer from Berlin has heard of Valencia, but because he has come here on his summer holidays rather than anything else. That’s precisely why being capital makes sense, because it makes us visible for what we are. And what we are is a lot for Valencia, and little for the world. What are we going to believe? Don’t you think so, Manu?

MANU – I coincide with you a little. Perhaps Valencia had its moment when it was on the map of world design fairs, when those of Europe were there too. The world of design fairs began in Europe but it has gradually emigrated to the USA, Asia, China and Japan. So I don’t believe that Valencia is on the current world map of contemporary design. Not because it shouldn’t be there, but because I feel that we design for ourselves, for what happens here, and that we don’t project ourselves much to the outside world. That is neither positive nor negative, but I think, like my father, that there are certain Spanish designers who stand out all over the world and I would say that we stand out more as a country than as a city. Not only on the design level, but also in architecture or in any of the arts.

MANOLO – I think that in design we are very local and we are too introspective. It gives the impression that everything begins and ends with the designs Valencian designers do for Valencian designers. In Valencian design there are no different styles. There is one, which is the “Valencian design style”, and we are not going anywhere with that. That has to change if we want to be in the world, and it can be done in two ways: we change and we position ourselves in the world, or we position ourselves in the world and we realise that, if we don’t change, they will send us straight down. I think there is going to be a before and after for Valencia World Design Capital provided that it generates a change. If it doesn’t generate it, we will have failed, because Valencian design needs to expand its horizons, to experiment, it needs much more risk. That is not just the role of designers, it must be accompanied by an industrial mindset that goes along the same lines, we need industrialists that back those new views of design. We also need users who will enjoy this change. One thing is clear: when you are fluent in a language it is necessary to change or you will stagnate. I heard on the radio today that C. Tangana, who was Rosalía’s boyfriend, has struck her a verbal blow. He said something like “It was fab knowing Rosalía when nobody knew her”. With design something similar happens: We all know what we are talking about when we talk about Valencian design, it isn’t fab anymore! Now it would be interesting if a lot of more disruptive, more daring people were to arise, to strike you and make you think. Don’t you agree, Manu?

MANU – I think designers are conditioned by industry, and industry is what there is, and there is less and less. If you work with the materials that local or national industry allows you, there are fewer and fewer opportunities because the sector is in crisis. If, furthermore, the history of Valencian and Spanish craftsmanship has been decaying over the years, where is the room to experiment and change? Like my father, I also have the feeling there is a common style in Valencian design.

MANOLO – Let’s say it is correct, predictable and not very surprising. With those keys you can’t be in the world of design.

PAULA – How do you think design could be focused to improve people’s lives? 

MANU – Regarding what my father has said about Free Design Bank, obviously I agree with almost everything. But, in my opinion, design doesn’t have to improve people’s lives or cover specific needs all the time. For me, a very simple way in which design can help people is by providing jobs. Production work, craft work. I’m going to talk about México because that’s where I live now. There are no large companies or large chains there for furniture or the production of design objects, it is quite a local industry, distributed between cities, and it still has short production runs. When you purchase that type of industry you understand who you are helping, who you are paying. In fact, they often have the production workshop in the same space where they sell. That said, for me, the way in which design can help is by involving as many people as possible in the creation process. There should also be a change in the type of consumption so that people purchase fewer but better things, especially things with a person behind them rather than a gigantic company.

MANOLO – I would like to add that Free Design Bank sets out to be a model in an environment where work is performed, not a design model. It is an experiment that works and which covers part of what design can offer. I wouldn’t like it to look as though Free Design Bank is the solution or the saviour that says which way designers should go. On the contrary. In fact, as a model it couldn’t be implemented here. The thing is, to the extent that the world is increasingly global, solving problems on other continents is also solving them on ours.

I think that being world design capital is a good opportunity to make Valencia known, because it isn’t known. We designers know each other, but we are 0.001% of the population of the planet.

PAULA – Now that we are moving towards such a technological, industrialised and global world, how do you see the future of craftsmanship?

MANOLO – I see it as doing very well. At least, I wish it all the best!

MANU – It depends where you are, but I also agree with my father. We are going in that direction, we are going back to what was already there. Everything depends on which part of the world you are in. Mexico, for example, is a country in which craftsmanship has never ceased to be alive, where artisans are valued and protected, their heritage is promoted. What is true is that an economic turnaround is required so that all thiscan continue to be attractive as a business. The problem I see in Mexico with craftsmanship is that, for many people, it is probable that they are the last generation to work at it. Most of the artisans I work with are between fifty and sixty years old, and their children don’t want to work at that. Perhaps the current problem in Mexico is that of other countries thirty or forty years ago, but I believe that we designers can somehow prevent this process of disappearance.

MANOLO – Design can and should enhance the possibilities of craftsmanship.

MANU – I think that design can leave mass production to one side and go back to craft production. That has been one of the factors that has led to craftsmanship being lost. It doesn’t have a public, a consumer. We must get used to producing and consuming differently. I believe this is a possible route for designers.

MANOLO – Along the lines of what you are saying, I believe that in general terms we have welcomed and embraced new technologies, forgetting about what there was before. It was cheaper, faster and more productive. What we should vindicate is one thing and the other. It is true that we are moving towards a digital world, but we continue to tread on a physical world. Why condemn or forget one thing for the benefit of the other? Let’s work with both. The physical world contains the materials, the value of the process; the digital world has the performance. I think that one of the problems of design is that, until now, we have forgotten about the artisans to place ourselves in the hands of new technologies. What we should have done is to embrace the new technologies without forgetting the knowledge and culture that comes from artisanal processes and materials. What we are doing today in the world of design is to stretch out our hand behind us to try to recover those processes. The problem is that, with these latest crises, the human factor, which was what had the knowledge, has retired or gone elsewhere: I worked for many years with a company that produced rattan furniture, Industrias Cerdà, that had I don’t know how many hundreds of workers who knew how to handle bamboo, cane, rattan, etc. It is necessary to dominate a whole series of techniques to convert a liana into a piece of furniture. When the company closed because of the crisis, hundreds of artisans who were specialised in handling a natural material lost their jobs and, with them, that knowledge was lost.

We have welcomed and embraced new technologies, forgetting about what there was before. It was cheaper, faster and more productive.

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